There is a grammar school in Goma, DRC Congo, playfully referred to as the “international school” by the local residents. There is nary a foreign student in sight, but closer inspection of the school’s materials, be it the books, the desks--each with its own riveted, screwed or printed label or plaque indicating the name of the donor--or the actual building, highlights the involvement of no less than five funding and implementing partners spanning three continents. International, indeed.
Such efforts to emphasize the origin of these contributions fall under a set of international development and humanitarian incentives known as “donor visibility”, that have long been part and parcel of the partnership and project landscape, down to such details as the flag and font size. Recently though, pressures for visibility have begun to mount due in part to the rise of the internet and globalization of information.
In the pre-internet days, the visibility and results of projects mainly circulated in the sphere of the technical experts who communicated the impact and benefits of projects to their government and ministerial superiors. These in turn communicated their country’s contributions to the parliamentarians and the general public. Doing so is critical to ensuring that the general public is aware that their taxpayer funds are being spent on worthwhile and noble causes reflecting the national interest.
Today, in the world of instant access to information, parliamentarians, senior policymakers and the general public are much better informed and fundamentally changing the nature of how such communication takes place.
It is not rare that a parliamentarian or a senator queries a small project in a distant country funded by her government. Not because she is a member of the International Development Subcommittee or because she had received a written letter or even an email, but because it was posted on Twitter and Facebook by one of her constituents following a thread on Reddit.
I recall colleagues from a bilateral development agency with an all-response policy, reserving their Fridays to handle parliamentary queries that had significantly multiplied over the years. Often, these questions would be: “Why are we spending funds on countries far away when I am unemployed back home?”
The obvious and broader implication is that as visibility increases, so do the number of taxpayers who notice. Proud as they may be to see their hard-earned dollars in action, taxpayers’ questions and opinions need to be catered for. Stronger and faster arguments are increasingly needed today, with people-centered stories demonstrating how lives actually change with such funding.
For us at UNDP, this means tailoring our messaging and the presentation of our results to our readers. This means speaking the language of development impact, outcomes outputs and indicators to our direct technical partners and funders concerned with the sustainability and effectiveness of results. But it also means that we reach out directly to parliamentarians and members of the public and highlight how lives practically and visibly change for the better thanks to their contributions and engagement.
From a partnership perspective, this means we need to seek visibility channels that have higher development and engagement value, i.e. involving our partners in the co-creation process of designing new country programmes with host governments, taking informed and collective risks on experimental solutions and reviewing development outcomes together. All of these and more provide opportunities for funding partners to be visible in leading, advising and advocating for international causes with host governments and the UNDP.
To advance this new imperative, we provided all our country offices with new visibility guidelines in 2019, especially for our core funding partners who provide the bulk of the flexible and voluntarily-funded UN funds and programmes.
For the children in the “international” school in Goma, the number of actors seeking visibility for their contributions may be on the extreme end. Partners are increasingly aware of this fragmentation. But for now, when a funding representative pays a visit to the school, there is a young human face speaking of how education and learning conditions are improving for the community.
And ideally, the child would also be sitting at that donor’s desk.